Quanterix CEO Sets Sight on Early Detection of Cancer, Neurological Diseases in the Blood

Xconomy Boston — 

The new CEO of Quanterix isn’t afraid to dream big, and say it out loud.

“We participate in an $8 billion market,” says CEO Dave Okrongly, referring to the business of antibody-based diagnostics. “Quanterix can be a platform for that whole $8 billion market.”

Okrongly was named CEO of the Cambridge, MA-based company in September, and now that he’s been settling in for a while, I got a fresh update just yesterday. The company is the latest brainchild of Tufts University chemistry professor David Walt, who previously hit gold with Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the San Diego-based genetic analysis powerhouse. Quanterix hasn’t said much publicly since it raised $15 million in venture capital back in August 2008, so I’ve been curious for some time about the company’s game plan for approaching the first segments of that $8 billion antibody-based diagnostics market.

Before diving into that, I first wanted to know a little about Okrongly. It turns out he’s got a doctorate in chemistry, and a resume with a lot of commercial experience, most recently as the senior vice president of the molecular diagnostics unit at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics. Earlier in his career, he caught the startup bug at Applied Immune Sciences, an early gene therapy company that was acquired in 1995 by what’s now Sanofi-Aventis.

So while Okrongly, 51, rose in the ranks at big companies, and introduced a number of clinical diagnostic tests around the world, he felt the urge to come back to a startup to create something new. When he first heard about Quanterix, he didn’t think it was for him. “It seemed early and raw,” he says.

Then he met personally with Walt, who changed his mind. “I thought, holy cow, this could change the whole way we do immunodiagnostics. I gotta give this a run. This is a transformative technology with top-notch people around it.”

Dave Okrongly

Dave Okrongly

Walt is equally enthused about the new leader at Quanterix. “Dave has exactly the right blend of diagnostics experience and strong technical background. He has helped push the company’s market strategy forward while helping it achieve its technical milestones,” Walt says.

The initial idea at Quanterix is to find a way to detect trace quantities of proteins in the blood, which could be an early warning sign for cancer or a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Quanterix says its test is about 1,000 times more sensitive than the gold standard ELISA assays. The older tests employ specific antibodies that are made to bind with certain biomarkers, known as antigens.

Some of these older tests can be quite cheap and reliable, but they also have their limits. One of the emerging ideas in biology is that tumors and other diseased tissues spill off specific proteins in the bloodstream, but these proteins generally come in trace amounts too small to be detected by the standard ELISA tests. The Quanterix system is designed to detect thousands of single molecules simultaneously, with proprietary chemistry and what the company calls “a relatively simple” instrument with a light source, optics, a digital camera, and an automated handling system. Software is then used to analyze the images.

Quanterix is betting that its ultra-sensitive tests can fill some of the gaps that ELISA tests struggle with. One well-known example is the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening test … Next Page »

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